On a personal note, I’ve noticed that a medical event is not as devastating to progress in a semester when the class is online as it might be in a regular classroom. I may be behind, but I’m not missing the lectures. This is a real boon for students who have chronic or recurring illnesses, and a true benefit of a MOOC (massive open online course).
But I’m also behind in my MOOC diary which I started several weeks ago, and I hope the reader will forgive me for that. Now, onward.
A friend pointed me to this quote:
“And, finally, the organization of popular education will pass into the hands of Radio. The Supreme Soviet of Sciences will broadcast lessons and lectures to all schools of the country—higher institutions as well as lower.
“The teacher will become merely a monitor while these lectures are in progress. The daily transmission of lessons and textbooks through the sky into country schools of the nation, the unification of its consciousness into a single will.
“Thus will Radio forge continuous links in the universal soul and mold mankind into a single entity.”
(Velimir Khlebnikov, “Radio of the Future” , trans. Paul Schmidt)
Seems to me that every new version of mass media has attempted to find a way to spread education to the masses, since the advent of the printing press. I remember old language records from childhood. Radio was seen as a potential pedagogical tool, and TV too, of course. NPR and PBS have maintained some success in this, of course, but pity all the cable channels that had their eyes on edification and now rely almost entirely on reality shows about child beauty pageants and weapons freaks.
There have certainly been some success in educational software. Rosetta Stone, for example, has taught me more French than I’d have gathered in the classroom, with less self-consciousness about learning to speak with a vaguely reasonable accent.
So it’s not surprising there are multiple outlets online for cobbling together an education online. The first real hit out of the ballpark was probably Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), which is a phenomenon of its own. But online learning is nothing new. A lot of schools had been partnering their classroom experiences with online content. My nephew in medical school tells me that there are many classes that people need not attend in person, because it’s pretty much all online.
So what makes a MOOC so different?
In my short experience — and with just the one MOOC course to go by — the significant difference for me has been the rather high production-value style of one-on-one professor-to-student experience in the presentation of the course material. However, some students in the forums have said that they wish the course at least occasionally showed us the classroom experience, as students take the course in the standard way, with the professor in the lecture hall, which is apparently going on concurrently at the University of Virginia (UVa). This, as one student said, would allow the online participants to have a sense of the classroom discussion. The desire to be in a classroom, debating controversial topics, stems from what appears to have become a rather intense conversation about Western vs. non-Western views of world history, and whether our professor is complicit in exacerbating a Eurocentric perspective that is too keenly felt, especially by the non-Western students, of which there are perhaps thousands in this MOOC.
The topic of the Eurocentric version of history is, of course, massive in itself. What I’m interested in at the moment, though, is that certain students believe that experiencing the physical classroom via video will provide them more insight than a large and diverse collection of discussion fora online.
I have pondered this for awhile. As you know, a large introductory lecture class is not usually the best site for deep discussion of controversial topics. And, in my experience as a TA, neither is a discussion section. There may be sections in which the occasional TA is able to elicit an exciting debate, but I can only imagine what disappointment the home scholar would feel as the camera pans the room, waiting for some student to tentatively let a comment fly. The presence of the camera might add an additional level of daunt to the proceedings, in fact.
Furthermore, this led me to recall my initial idea of the graduate seminar as an arena in which educated minds could meet and work out Big Ideas in a collegial yet challenging environment. Ah, the romance of the fledgling graduate student, prior to the realization that the seminar is made up of people who are competing for the attention of the professor and those who are trying to make it through a few hours without letting it slip that they hadn’t read the book.
Are we better off in the classroom than in the MOOC, where forum discussions are rampant and only somewhat moderated? In a discussion section, TAs can hope that their students will have learned their names by the end of the term. In the MOOC, the TAs may be completely invisible. Either way, many students will never meet their professor. With a MOOC, you’re welcome to join other locals at a Meet-Up — if there are other locals. Forums often lead to rather unexpurgated, sometimes crass interactions, of course, and we may miss the interactions with our in-person peers. But I continue to think that the college classroom and the MOOC are, and are likely to continue to be, two very different audiences. The presence of the MOOC does not signal the end of traditional college learning, at least not in the near future, from what I can see now.
As MOOCs are all the rage these days, I thought I should take one for a spin to see what the experience was like, from the standpoint of a student. I find the pedagogical implications of MOOCs, or “massive open online courses” to be intriguing, and I am always interested in furthering my education. I’m drawn to the ethnographic possibilities in any situation, so when Patricia Lange suggested that I might do an ethno diary of my MOOCing experience, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the diary entries, with initial impressions of the first week of class. I intend to add additional entries during the semester.
I haven’t seen the inside of a classroom, either as a student or teacher, for some years, having had to concede my part-time lecturing to the pressing need for health insurance. Currently I work on behalf of others’ research in a field not my own, but it’s steady work and I can now afford to see a doctor. The struggle to find a teaching position for an MA/ABD scholar in anthropology is particularly difficult, as anyone who has a PhD and a resume on the move might well appreciate. But this has not dampened my enthusiasm for education, and so I’m always up for immersion in new forms.
I signed up for an undergraduate-level course on the history of the modern world, taught by a University of Virginia prof with an impressive CV. While I can lay claim to an expensive graduate education, I was missing a good overview of world history, and I was especially interested in getting a good chronology of the birth and growth of modernism, so this seemed an ideal course. After signing up, I received a few emails reminding me when the course would start, with some hints as to what to expect, and with the startling information that approximately 40,000 people had also signed up for the same course. (I’ve since learned that upwards of 100,000 people for a course is not unheard of.) After that, I received no new information until the first day of “class.”
Some initial impressions and take-aways:
When there are 40,000 people in your class, you should order your books as early as possible. In this course, in fact, there is an online textbook that one can “rent” for about $25 for the semester. There is also a recommended reading list, with at least one book that shows up in the syllabus frequently, that one can backorder online. Presumably my copy will show up during the semester. None of these readings, by the way, are required for the course, but are recommended if you want to go beyond the PowerPoint. I assume that a great many people are purchasing or leasing a license to read the textbook. (Non-American students apparently are having trouble accessing the textbook.)
The forums for the course are active. If you’ve spent a modicum of time in social networks, this is comfortable territory, and the first forum established is the standard “Who are you people and where are you from?” query. So far, about 800 people have responded to the question, and from a brief look at the replies, I see that the majority of students are not logging in from the US; there seem to be a substantial number from China, Ukraine, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the UK, Spain, and the Philippines. There is at least one student from Mozambique, and many other countries as far-flung as one can imagine from UVA.
Issues of scale are, of course, immediately evident. Early numbers seem to indicate that one can expect a course to end with 7 to 9 percent of its original student body. That’s still an impressive number of people. And, of course, I’m the student body; it’s just me at my desk. Me and my professor, who seems quite charming.
The professor, of course, is talking to me on my computer, in much the same way that the host of a PBS program is talking to me on my TV. It’s a comfortable space to be in; it’s recognizably cozy. I can fix my gaze and memorize expressions and gestures, without embarrassment. And then I can go to the forum, where the fans are gathering to discuss which catch phrases and expressions are generating buzz. “Make yourself comfortable,” the professor tells us at the beginning of each video session (and there are several of these each week), except when he doesn’t say it. “He didn’t tell me to make myself comfortable at the start of section 2.4! I had to make myself comfortable without being reminded.” A joke, but telling of the significance of a repeated phrase of welcome. An active forum describes how delightful his smile is when he tells us that he’ll see us next time. Charming and witty! People are loving our professor.
There are people working behind the scenes; they are the MOOC team. I presume that these are TAs and RAs. I want to find out more about this team, but so far they seem to be working on glitches with grading and swiftly rewriting quiz questions into a multiple-choice format, as the forums are alight with disgruntled quiz-takers, especially those for whom English is not the first language.
And who are the students? Are we assuming an audience that is of undergraduate age, more or less, people who are not well-served by or without access to the current American undergraduate system? A cursory look at the forum replies about why people are taking the class shows that — at least among those who are self-selecting to answer the question — many of the students are retired and want to exercise their intellects; others are Americans living overseas, or are new mothers who need some stimulation. Many are people who already have college educations but want to add something to their educational resumes.
It’s early days with MOOCs, of course, and with my personal experience, but I’m seeing some intriguing patterns that may not fit with the expectations of those who are eyeing the platform with pedagogical suspicion or with hope for a radical disruption of the current model for college education.
Comments regarding my MOOC diary entries are most enthusiastically welcome!
The term “big data”  brings up the specter of a new positivism, as another one in the series of many ideological tropes that have sought to supplant the qualitative and descriptive sciences with numbers and statistics.
But what do scientists think of big data? Last year, in a widely circulated blog post titled “The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble,” physicist Jake VanderPlas made the argument that the real reason big data is dangerous is because it moves scientists from the academy to corporations. « Read the rest of this entry »
The CASTAC community joined together in 2012 to launch this blog and begin dialogue on contemporary issues and research approaches. Even though the blog is just getting off the ground, certain powerful themes are already emerging across different projects and areas of study. Key themes for the coming year include dealing with large data sets, connecting individual choices to larger economic forces, and translating the meaning of actions from different realms of experience.
Perhaps the most visible trend on our minds right now involves dealing with scale. How can anthropologists, ethnographers, and other STS scholars address large data sets and approaches in research and pedagogy, while also retaining an appropriate relationship to the theories and methods that have made our disciplines strong? As we look ahead to 2013, it would seem that a big question for the CASTAC community involves finding creative and ethical ways to deal with phenomena that range from the overwhelmingly large to the microscopic, in order to provide insight and serve our constituents in research and teaching.
Discussing large-scale forays into education and research
In the past two weeks in her posts on MOOCs in the Machine, Jordan Kraemer, our dedicated Web Producer, has been reflecting on how higher education is grappling with MOOCs, or “massive open online classes,” which open up opportunities to those who have been shut out of traditional elite institutions. At the same time, serious questions emerged about the ramifications of trade-offs between saving money and providing high-quality education. Kraemer points out that much of the debate ties into larger arguments about why it is that people have been shut out of education and how concentration of wealth and the neoliberalization of the university are challenging the old equation of supporting open-ended research that ultimately strengthens and supports teaching. She proposes new forms of graduate education in which recent graduates are supported by their universities with teaching jobs, to complete teaching experience, transfer teaching loads from full-time faculty, and support graduate students as they transition into full-time positions.
Part of the issue with MOOCs has to do with questions of scale, and how or whether individual lectures and course preparation can be generalized to large-scale audiences in ways that provide solid instruction without compromising quality. Higher-education depends upon staying current with research, and so far, we do not have enough evidence to support the idea that MOOCs will work or will address all of the concerns emerging from the neoliberalization of the academy. Those of us interested in online interaction and pedagogy will be watching this space closely in the coming year.
Questions of scale also came into play with Daniel Miller’s discussion of doing Eight Comparative Ethnographies. Miller argues that doing several ethnographies at the same time will enable comparative questions that are not possible when investigating one site alone. He provides an example from social network sites. He asks, to what extent are particular behaviors the product of a type of site, a single site, or the intersection of cultures in which a site is embedded? Is the behavior so because it is happening on Facebook or because the participants are Brazilian? A comparative study enables a level of analysis that is more inclusive than that derived from a single study. Expanding scale without compromising the traditions and benefits of ethnographic work remains a challenge for these and other large-scale projects in the future, which have the potential to provide crucial insights.
Making small-scale choices visible
As one set of researchers bring up issues with regard to enormously large-scale education and research, other STS participants on The CASTAC Blog are dealing with the opposite issue, which involves grappling with how the dynamics of extremely personal and individualistic acts—such as the donation of sex cells—interact with large-scale economic and cultural forces. In her post on The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, Rene Almeling, the winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, provides an inside look into how human beings’ donations of sex cells are connected to much larger economic forces that play out differently for women and men. Women are urged to regard egg donation as a feminine act of a gift; men are encouraged to see donation as a job. Almeling ties our understanding of what might be an individual act into economic forces, as well as gendered, cultural expectations about families and reproduction. Gendered framings of donation not only impact the individuals who provide genetic material, but also strongly influence the structure of the market for sex cells.
Another key issue on our minds has to do with dealing with personal responsibility and showing how individual choices impact much larger social and economic forces in finance, computing, and going green.
In his post, On Building Social Robustness, David Hakken raises the question of how individuals contributed to large-scale economic and social crises, such as the recent disasters in the world of finance. His project is informed by work that is trying to deal with the first “5,000 years” in the history of debt. He proposes developing a notion of social robustness, parallel to the idea of the technical notion of robustness in computer science.
His work provides an intriguing use of ideas from people whom we study, and applying them as an inspiration for making social change. When Hakken asks about the extent to which computing professionals are ethically responsible for the financial crisis, he is proposing a way of asking how a large-scale disaster can be traced to more individual, micro-units of action. By investigating these connections, his project informs a conversation that is increasingly picking up steam in the area of the anthropology of value.
Hakken’s reflections are especially haunting as he warns of the difficulties of building a career in anthropology and STS. As he is moving towards retirement, his perspective is especially valued in our community. As an antidote to more provincial institutional perspectives, he urges a more consolidated and community approach that involves supporting each other in doing the important work that the CASTAC community has the potential to achieve.
Questions of scale and responsibility are once again intertwined in David J. Hess’s post on Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition. Hess points out that a non-partisan political issue has become partisan despite the fact that the planet has now surpassed a carbon dioxide level that it has not had for at least 800,000 years! But because change is imperceptibly slow to the human eye, politics is allowed to complicate change. Hess has worked to investigate what he calls the “problem behind the problem,” which involves the lack of political will to address environmental sustainability and social fairness, which considerably worsens the environmental problem itself. He provides real solutions through an ambitious three-part series of books that propose “alternative pathways” or social movements centered on reform in part through the efforts of the private sector.
Notably, personal experiences in anthropology inform Hess’s work. Although he is in a sociology department and in an energy and environment institute, he points out that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform his thinking. While the discourse on these issues has traditionally revolved around a two party system, Hess’s more anthropological approach makes visible other ideologies such as localism and developmentalism that may pave a more direct path to “good green jobs” and a more sensitive and responsible green policy. Again interacting with questions of scale, Hess’s notions of responsibility are grounded in understanding the “broad contours” of the “tectonic shifts” of ideology and policy that are underway in working toward a green transition in the United States and around the world. Without real action, however, his prognoses remains pessimistic.
Translating phenomena across different realms of experience
A theme that also emerged from our nascent blog’s initial posts had to do with understanding the ramifications of processing one realm of experiencing by using metaphors and concepts from another. In her post on the Anthropological Investigations of MIME-NET, Lucy Suchman explores the darker side of entertainment and its relationship to military applications. She investigates how information and communication technologies have “intensified rather than dissipated” what theorists have described as the “fog of war.”
The problem is partly one of translation. How is it possible to maintain what military strategists call “situational awareness,” which has to do with maintaining a constant and accurate mental image of relevant tactical information. Suchman is studying activities such as The Flatworld Project, which bring together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming, and other models of immersive computing to understand these dynamics. Such a project also involves analyzing how such approaches “extend human capacities for action at a distance,” and present ethical challenges to researchers as they grapple with military realms and connecting seemingly disparate but interrelated areas such as war and healthcare.
Lisa Messeri’s post, Anthropology and Outer Space, offers an absolutely fascinating look into human conceptualization of place. She asks, why should earthlings be concerned about what is happening on Mars? Her work focuses on how “scientists transform planets from objects into places.” Significant milestones in space exploration such as the passing of Venus between the Earth and the Sun (not scheduled to do so again until 2117) and the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, provide rich areas to mine for understanding cultural notions of place and human exploration. Curiosity has its own Twitter account (!) and tweets freely about its experience of “springtime” in its southern hemisphere. Messeri argues that this kind of language “bridges” our worlds in that Curiosity somehow seems to experience something that is familiar to humans—springtime. Scientists are now studying things that are so far away that telescopes cannot take an image of them. Somehow, these “invisible” objects become familiar and complex. Planets begin to seem like places because of the way in which language “makes the strange familiar,” and bridges the experience between events on an exoplanet and life on Earth.
Astronomers become place makers, and observing these processes shows how spaces become “social” even as Messeri argues, “humans will never visit such planetary places.” Messeri shows how such conceptualizations can lead to the spread of erroneous scientific rumors that get reported on national news organizations. Her work shows not only how knowledge production is compromised by the use of such metaphors but also provides an intriguing look at how humans process invisible objects through the cultural production of imagined place.
Tune in next week!
Given that questions of scale were on our minds in 2012, it is especially fitting that we launch 2013 with a discussion about Big Data, and the challenges and opportunities that emerge when entities collect and combine huge data sets that are far too large to handle through ordinary coding schemes or desktop databases. Social scientists, technologists, and other researchers must grapple with numerous issues including legibility, data integrity, ethics, and usability. I am particularly pleased that David Hakken agreed to be interviewed by The CASTAC Blog to discuss his views. Next week, he provides fascinating insights into what the future holds for dealing with Big Data!
Before signing off, I would like to thank everyone for their participation in The CASTAC Blog, especially those who wrote posts, left comments, read articles, and tweeted our posts to the world. I very much appreciated everyone’s participation. The richness of the posts makes it too difficult to adequately cover all the content of the past year in one commentary, but rest assured that everyone’s post is contributing to the conversation and is valued by the CASTAC community.
In an effort to include more voices and keep a continuing flow of content, The CASTAC Blog is now seeking a core group of “frequent” contributors to keep pace with new developments in this space in 2013. Notice that I use the term “frequent” sparingly—even a few posts throughout the year makes you a frequent contributor. Please consider sharing your thoughts and views with the CASTAC community. If you would like to join in, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!
Patricia G. Lange
The CASTAC Blog